Stephen F. Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University.
(The text below is a somewhat expanded version of remarks I delivered at the annual US-Russia Forum in Washington, DC, held in the Hart Senate Office Building, on March 26. As a text, it first appeared in The Nation. )
When I spoke at this forum nine months ago, in June 2014, I warned that the Ukrainian crisis was the worst US-Russian confrontation in many decades. It had already plunged us into a new (or renewed) Cold War potentially even more perilous than its forty-year US-Soviet predecessor because the epicenter of this one was on Russia’s borders; because it lacked the stabilizing rules developed during the preceding Cold War; and because, unlike before, there was no significant opposition to it in the American political-media establishment. I also warned that we might soon be closer to actual war with Russia than we had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
I regret to say that today the crisis is even worse. The new Cold War has been deepened and institutionalized by transforming what began, in February last year, as essentially a Ukrainian civil war into a US/NATO-Russian proxy war; by a torrent of inflammatory misinformation out of Washington, Moscow, Kiev and Brussels; and by Western economic sanctions that are compelling Russia to retreat politically, as it did in the late 1940s, from the West. Still worse, both sides are again aggressively deploying their conventional and nuclear weapons and probing the other’s defenses in the air and at sea. Diplomacy between Washington and Moscow is being displaced by resurgent militarized thinking, while cooperative relationships nurtured over many decades, from trade, education, and science to arms control, are being shredded. And yet, despite this fateful crisis and its growing dangers, there is still no effective political opposition to the US policies that have contributed to it—not in the administration, Congress, mainstream media, think tanks, or on campuses—but instead mostly uncritical political, financial, and military boosterism for the increasingly authoritarian Kiev regime, hardly a bastion of “democracy and Western values.”
Indeed, the current best hope to avert a larger war is being assailed by political forces, especially in Washington and in US-backed Kiev, that seem to want a military showdown with Russia’s unreasonably vilified president, Vladimir Putin. In February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande brokered in Minsk a military and political agreement with Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that, if implemented, would end the Ukrainian civil war. Powerful enemies of the Minsk accord—again, in both Washington and Kiev—are denouncing it as appeasement of Putin while demanding that President Obama send $3 billion of weapons to Kiev. Such a step would escalate the war in Ukraine, sabotage the ceasefire and political negotiations agreed upon in Minsk, and provoke a Russian military response with unpredictable consequences. While Europe is splitting over the crisis, and with it perhaps shattering the vaunted transatlantic alliance, this recklessness in Washington is fully bipartisan, urged on by four all-but-unanimous votes in Congress. (We must therefore honor the 48 House members who voted against the most recent warfare resolution on March 23, even if their dissent is too little, too late.)
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What more can I say today? I could use my limited time to point out that the primary cause of this fateful crisis has been US policy since the 1990s, not “Russian aggression.” But I did so here nine months ago and subsequently published those remarks (“Patriotic Heresy vs. The New Cold War,” September 15, 2014). Instead, I want to look back briefly to the US-Soviet Cold War, as well as ahead, in order to ask, perhaps quixotically: Even if negotiations over the Ukrainian civil war proceed, how do we sustain them and avoid another prolonged, more perilous Cold War with post-Soviet Russia?
The answer is through a new détente between Washington and Moscow. For this, we must relearn a fundamental lesson from the history of the 40-year US-Soviet Cold War and how it ended, a history largely forgotten, distorted, or unknown to many younger Americans. Simply recalled, détente, as an idea and a policy, meant expanding elements of cooperation in US-Soviet relations while diminishing areas of dangerous conflict, particularly, though not only, in the existential realm of the nuclear arms race. In this regard, détente had a long, always embattled, often defeated but ultimately victorious history.
Leaving aside the first détente of 1933, when Washington officially recognized Soviet Russia after fifteen years of diplomatic non-recognition (the first Cold War), latter-day détente began in the mid-1950s under President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It was soon disrupted by Cold War forces and events on both sides. The pattern continued for thirty years: under President John Kennedy and Khrushchev, after the Cuban Missile Crisis; under President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, in the growing shadow of Vietnam; under President Richard Nixon and Brezhnev in the 1970s, the most expansive era of détente; and briefly under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, also with Brezhnev. Each time, détente was gravely undermined, intentionally and unintentionally, and abandoned as Washington policy, though not by its determined American proponents. (Having been among them in the 1970s and ’80s, I can testify on their behalf.)
Then, in 1985, the seemingly most Cold War president ever, Ronald Reagan, began with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a renewed détente so far-reaching that both men, as well as Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, believed they had ended the Cold War. How did détente, despite three decades of repeated defeats and political defamation, remain a vital and ultimately triumphant (as it seemed at the time to most observers) American policy?
Above all, because Washington gradually acknowledged that Soviet Russia was a co-equal great power with comparable legitimate national interests in world affairs. This recognition was given a conceptual basis and a name: “parity.”
It is true that “parity” began as a grudging recognition of the US-Soviet nuclear capacity for “mutually assured destruction” and that, due to their different systems (and “isms”) at home, the parity principle (as I termed it in 1981 in a New York Times op-ed) did not mean moral equivalence. It is also true that powerful American political forces never accepted the principle and relentlessly assailed it. Even so, the principle existed—like sex in Victorian England, acknowledged only obliquely in public but amply practiced—as reflected in the commonplace expression “the two superpowers,” without the modifier “nuclear.”
Most important, every US president returned to it, from Eisenhower to Reagan. Thus, Jack Matlock Jr., a leading diplomatic participant in and historian of the Reagan-Gorbachev-Bush détente, tells us that for Reagan, “détente was based on several logical principles,” the first being “the countries would deal with each other as equals.”
Three elements of US-Soviet parity were especially important. First, both sides had recognized spheres of influence, “red lines” that should not be directly challenged. This understanding was occasionally tested, even violated, as in Cuba in 1962, but it prevailed. Second, neither side should interfere excessively, apart from the mutual propaganda war, in the other’s internal politics. This too was tested—particularly in regard to Soviet Jewish emigration and political dissidents—but generally negotiated and observed. And third, Washington and Moscow had a shared responsibility for peace and mutual security in Europe, even while competing economically and militarily in what was called the Third World. This assumption was also tested by serious crises, but they did not negate the underlying parity principle.
Those tenets of parity prevented a US-Soviet hot war during the long Cold War. They were the basis of détente’s great diplomatic successes, from symbolic bilateral leadership summits, arms control agreements, and the 1975 Helsinki Accords on European security, based on sovereign equality, to many other forms of cooperation now being discarded. And in 1985-89, they made possible what both sides declared to be the end of the Cold War.
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We are in a new Cold War with Russia today, and specifically over the Ukrainian confrontation, largely because Washington nullified the parity principle. Indeed, we know when, why, and how this happened.
The three leaders who negotiated an end to the US-Soviet Cold War said repeatedly at the time, in 1988-90, that they did so “without any losers.” Both sides, they assured each other, were “winners.” But when the Soviet Union itself ended nearly two years later, in December 1991, Washington conflated the two historic events, leading the first President Bush to change his mind and declare, in his 1992 State of the Union address, “By the grace of God, America won the Cold War.” He added that there was now “one sole and pre-eminent power, the United States of America.” This dual rejection of parity and assertion of America’s pre-eminence in international relations became, and remains, a virtually sacred US policymaking axiom, one embodied in the formulation by President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, that “America is the world’s indispensable nation,” which was echoed in President Obama’s 2014 address to West Point cadets, in which he said, “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.”
This official American triumphalist narrative is what we have told ourselves and taught our children for nearly twenty-five years. Rarely is it challenged by leading American politicians or commentators. It is a bipartisan orthodoxy that has led to many US foreign policy disasters, not least in regard to Russia.
For more than two decades, Washington has perceived post-Soviet Russia as a defeated and thus lesser nation, presumably analogous to Germany and Japan after World War II, and therefore as a state without legitimate rights and interests comparable to America’s, either abroad or at home, even in its own region. Anti-parity thinking has shaped every major Washington policy toward Moscow, from the disastrous crusade to remake Russia in America’s image in the 1990s, ongoing expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, non-reciprocal negotiations known as “selective cooperation,” double-standard conduct abroad, and broken promises to persistent “democracy-promotion” intrusions into Russia’s domestic politics.
Two exceedingly dangerous examples are directly related to the Ukrainian crisis. For years, US leaders have repeatedly asserted that Russia is not entitled to any “sphere of influence,” even on its own borders, while at the same time enlarging the US sphere of influence, spearheaded by NATO, to those borders—by an estimated 400,000 square miles, probably the largest such “sphere” inflation ever in peacetime. Along the way, the US political-media establishment has vilified Putin personally in ways it never demonized Soviet Communist leaders, at least after Stalin, creating the impression of another policy orientation antithetical to parity—the delegitimization and overthrow of Russia’s government.
Moscow has repeatedly protested this US sphere creep, loudly after it resulted in a previous proxy war in another former Soviet republic, Georgia, in 2008, but to deaf or defiant ears in Washington. Inexorably, it seems, Washington’s anti-parity principle led to today’s Ukrainian crisis, and Moscow reacted as it would have under any established national leader, and as any well-informed observer knew it would.
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Unless the idea of détente is fully rehabilitated, and with it the essential parity principle, the new Cold War will include a growing risk of actual war with nuclear Russia. We must therefore strive for a new détente. Time may not be on our side, but reason is.
To those who say this is “appeasement” or “Putin apologetics,” we reply, no, it is American patriotism, not only because of the risk of a larger war but because real US national security on many vital issues and in many critical regions—from nuclear proliferation and international terrorism to the Middle East and Afghanistan—requires a partner in the Kremlin.
To those who insist that an American president must never enter into such a partnership with the demonized Putin, we explain that his vilification is largely without facts or logic. We also point out that NATO expansion eastward since the 1990s willfully excluded Russia from Europe’s post-Soviet “security order,” which Putin is now accused of betraying, while that expansion betrayed the West’s earlier promise to Moscow of a “Common European Home.”
To those triumphalists who insist that Russia is not entitled to any “sphere of influence,” we answer that the issue is not nineteenth-century imperialism but a reasonable zone of security on its borders free of US or NATO military power—in Ukraine and Georgia, to take the most pressing examples. And we ask: If the United States is entitled to such zones of security not only in Canada and Mexico but throughout the Western Hemisphere, according to Washington’s Monroe Doctrine, why is not Russia so entitled regarding its neighbors? (To those who answer that any country that formally qualifies has a right to NATO membership, we say, no, NATO is a security organization, not a charity or the AARP, and indiscriminate NATO expansion has not truly enhanced any nation’s security but only discouraged diplomacy, as the Ukrainian crisis demonstrates.)
To those who say Russia lacks such equal entitlements because Moscow lost the 40-year Cold War, we explain how it actually ended.
And to those who maintain that America must pursue “democracy promotion,” even regime change, in today’s Russia, we answer, as I did in Congressional testimony in 1977: “We do not have the wisdom or the power, or the right, to try directly to shape change inside the Soviet Union. Any foreign government that becomes deeply involved in Soviet internal politics…will do itself and others more harm than good. What the United States can and should do is influence Soviet liberalization indirectly by developing a long-term American foreign policy, and thereby an international environment, that will strengthen reformist trends and undermine reactionary ones inside the Soviet Union.… In short, détente.”
That truth was confirmed by events less than a decade later, and then forgotten. It is no less applicable to Russia, and to US-Russian relations, today, beginning with the application of the parity principle to Ukraine. This means both sides agreeing to an independent but militarily non-aligned Ukraine with a fair degree of home rule for those regions fighting to preserve their historical affinities with Russia and for those seeking fuller relations with the West. Implementing the embattled Minsk accords would be a major step in this direction, as its enemies understand. Others say it is too late for such a détente, that too much blood has been shed in Ukraine. But consider the alternatives.